When I’ve met Millennials whom I’ve come to admire I’ve simply categorized them with a group of my own allegiance rather than consider the possibility that I’d been using blanket stereotypes to make myself more comfortable.
The other day I was in the back of an Über car scrolling through comments on an acquaintance’s Facebook post to pass the time while heading to LaGuardia Airport after a writing conference. This acquaintance—a well-known blogger whom I’d met through my involvement with the ONE Campaign’s girls and women initiative—had been asked to speak about parenting for an audience of Millennials, and she was looking for ideas for talking points.
Huh? I thought. She’s speaking to Millennial parents? Maybe these are teen moms or something.
In my mind, “Millennials” were still teenagers—an almost mythical group of bratty kids whose parents have provided every material desire they’ve wished for and every answer to the problems the rest of us had to work out on our own. When conversations have popped up about stereotypical “Millennial entitlement,” I’ve always told the same story.
When my oldest was still a toddler and my husband and I were figuring our way financially through the start of the Great Recession, a friend from Southern California blew me away with a story about one of her neighbors. Both parents had lost their positions in the white collar professional realm as California experienced the recession’s initial blows. The mom was working a menial job at a local restaurant and taking whatever temp work she could get as the family racked up a mountain of debt, their mortgage went unpaid, and they tried to keep themselves fed while riding it out. Their daughter, who was in high school, was going on with life as usual—driving her car to school, hanging out with her friends, and not noticing that the adults around her were stressing over how to keep their families fed. One day, the daughter came home from school demanding an iPod for her birthday. Her parents were already paying for her car, her gasoline, and her auto insurance—despite having lost their professional jobs. The mom told my friend that she was going to have to take on some extra shifts in order provide the gift her daughter had demanded instead of asked for.
“You’re going through enough,” my friend tried to reason. “Why can’t she earn the money for the iPod?”
The mom, my friend said, looked at her as if she’d gone crazy. “I would work two or three jobs at different fast food restaurants in order to give my daughter what she wants,” she said, “because I love her and she deserves it.”
Wait. What? I thought to myself. She loves her daughter, so therefore she’s going to go even further in risking losing the roof over her head for a dumb iPod? I don’t even have an iPod! Remember that this was in 2007, back in the dark ages when a house with an iPod wasn’t nearly as common as, say, a house with a refrigerator.
Since then, this is the image I’ve had in my mind of the Millennial—a young person who grew up having the things my contemporaries and I—regardless of family income—had to justify and work for by earning good grades, being responsible, and often earning the money to pay for them. While one can’t blame such a group for thinking they’ll get whatever jobs, cars, or purses they see just because they want them, the idea of such an attitude is a pretty big turn-off.
As I started reading the comments on this Facebook post I realized that some of our mutual friends were using words like we and us. I was a bit startled when A’Driane Nieves, an artist and founder of the Tessera Collective, a mental health support and empowerment group for women of color, agreed with another commenter who suggested that the poster not use the word “millennial” in her speech. “It’s used so disdainfully toward us. I hate it,” Nieves said.
But A’Driane is a passionate creative professional who’s married with children, I thought. She’s too mature to be a Millennial!
Other Millennial commenters mentioned that they’d appreciate hearing someone address them as if they were intelligent adults who are peers rather than spoiled brats. I wasn’t the only confused observer. There were other commenters who started out cracking jokes about the generational group, then ended up asking questions and taking a few steps back. By this point the Über driver was surely wondering about my sanity, as I’m pretty sure there were squeaky, perplexed noises working their way out of my throat. I was shamefully confused as I held my image of the typical Millennial up against that of these strong, accomplished women.
But there’s the rub. Right there in the sentence above. Typical. How often do we use and hear that word these days in America?
Typical gay man.
Typical snotty rich guy.
Typical angry black woman.
Typical angry white male.
Every day we hear about America’s current, tainted age of divisive politics. Should we be surprised that such divisiveness has also become a part of our vernacular structure? And as such, this divisiveness has caused us to take the human tendency to order things into groups to the extreme. It’s become natural.
The language invented by the public relations machine that churns our political climate is achieving its goal of dividing and conquering in the most sneaky, subversive ways. We’re not just suspicious of each other’s politics. We’re suspicious of each other’s race. We’re suspicious of each other’s age. We’re suspicious of each other’s parenting philosophies. We’re suspicious of each other’s incomes. We’re even suspicious of each other’s facial hair.
Since we’re in the midst of election season I don’t see a way to talk the masterminds of the political PR machine down in the coming months, but there is one thing I’d like to say.
American sociologist C. Wright Mills once wrote:
Fresh perception now involves the capacity to continually unmask and to smash the stereotypes of vision and intellect with which modern communications [i.e. modern systems representation] swamp us. These worlds of mass-art and mass-thought are increasingly geared to the demands of politics. That is why it is in politics that intellectual solidarity and effort must be centered. If the thinker does not relate himself to the value of truth in political struggle, he cannot responsibly cope with the whole of live experience.
The purpose of the divisive narrative in today’s American politics is to shame people into Orwellian groupthink. Donald Trump may sound outlandish in his rants against the immigrant, and Bernie Saunders may sound exceptionally fed up when he rails against the machinations of the rich and powerful. There are many people who fall somewhere in between these two figures of surprisingly populist extremism, refusing to choose a side, but are still in the unfortunate position of having to absorb the rhetoric. It’s dangerous and worse than divisive. It causes us to refuse to understand our friends.
This is what I’ve done, and when I’ve met Millennials whom I’ve come to admire I’ve simply categorized them with a group of my own allegiance rather than consider the possibility that I’d been using blanket stereotypes to make myself more comfortable.
So again: I’m sorry.
Shani Gilchrist is a critic, essayist, and freelance journalist. She writes about the arts, culture, and race while attempting to figure out why Americans find “diversity” to be a scary word. Her essays have appeared in Equals, Vol. 1, and State of the Heart, Vol. 2: South Carolina Writers on the Places They Love (Fall 2015, USC Press). Shani is writing a memoir while also performing the duties of homework-checker, boo-boo kisser, and dog cuddler. Find her at ShaniGilchrist.com, and on Facebook. Her Twitter handle is @ShaniRGilchrist.